Staying alive in the frozen north

What is it like to live and eat in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city?

Svalbard greenhouse

Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Top: Inside this geodesic greenhouse, Ben Vidmar is attempting to bring locally grown fresh produce to Svalbard.

Elizabeth Bourne
Seattle

What safety net?

Norway’s admirable social-services network doesn’t exist in Svalbard. There’s no welfare, or health insurance, or any of the other benefits Norwegians are so fortunate to have. Most jobs are less than full time, so guides and restaurant workers and hotel staff and all the myriad other workers needed to service 65,000+ tourists a year have to work two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet. I have met a cook/weekend DJ. A bartender/dog musher/photographer. A wilderness guide/waitress. A postal/airport security worker. They all have to find housing; they all need to eat.

Generally, a studio apartment for one person runs around $1,000 a month, and this is a small studio of 121 sq. feet. They are becoming scarce, since apartment owners have discovered they can make more money through AirBnB. You can live cheaper in dormitory-style housing. Where I live follows that model. As a resident artist, my housing and studio space is subsidized by the government as part of its program to make Longyearbyen an arts center (during the short time I’ve been here there’s been a literature festival, a show of performance art, and a Czech culture festival). I have a bedroom with a desk and a single bed. I share the kitchen and bathroom with an Austrian woman who is also here as an artist.

Import prices for edible “goods”

While there are many tourist shops in Longyearbyen, there’s only one store, the Coop Svalbardbutikken, which serves as a department store for food, liquor (you must have either a government-issued liquor card or your boarding pass to buy alcohol), household goods, office supplies, and basic clothing like underwear and socks. The prices are high.

A liter of whole milk costs $4. A single avocado (buying an avocado in the Arctic circle was pure optimism on my part) is $6. Minestrone soup costs $5. A bag of shredded Norwegian cheese is $3.45. Half a kilo of apples, $5.37. A dozen eggs, $6. Chocolate chip cookies, that most precious and important-to-my-happiness commodity, cost $2.98.

Everything is shipped in. By the time fruits and vegetables arrive, they do not look appetizing. Most U.S. grocery stores would reject them, but here whatever you can get is great. I’ve learned to buy my fresh fruits and vegetables on Sunday or Monday because by Tuesday, what’s left looks grim. Mushy peaches. Brown green peppers. Melons so soft your fingers go through them.

Meat and fish are frozen, and in such large amounts it’s impossible for a single person to buy them. While I appreciate the economy of scale involved in buying an entire reindeer roast, I can’t store or eat that. The same with fish and chicken. So I limit myself to buying pre-made meatballs and fish balls and sausage—though the goat sausage, that was a mistake!

The bread is good, and my preference is buying unbaked mini baguettes that I can bake at home. Whole wheat and white bread are available—but there’s only one supplier. Bread isn’t sliced. There’s a bread slicer by checkout so you can slice your bread. I’ve been afraid to use it for fear my bread would explode, but fortunately there are many kinds of crackers. There’s also a wide selection of cheeses, so often cheese and crackers and tiny tomatoes is what’s for dinner.

Svalbard

Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
You can buy groceries in Longyearbyen’s one store, but in many cases only one brand is represented. Hope you like Regal flour!

Growing your own

One man is trying to solve the fresh food problem. Ben Vidmar, an Ohio-born chef, founded Polar Permaculture to find a way to provide locally grown vegetables to his community. Cordon Bleu trained, Vidmar was horrified at the quality of food available, and that food waste was not being composted. He bootstrapped Polar Permaculture to try to meet the needs at least of Longyearbyen’s restaurants. With the help of two small grants from the Norwegian government, the support of patrons on his Patreon site  (www.polarpermaculture.com/support-us/), and a few loyal investors, he built an Alaskan-style geodesic greenhouse.

Svalbard

Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Inside this geodesic greenhouse, Ben Vidmar is attempting to bring locally grown fresh produce to Svalbard.
Above: Vidmar’s indoor seedlings are a step toward providing fresh produce year-round, despite freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight.

He also maintains an inside lab where he grows micro greens and baby kale year-round. In the spring he begins his seeds here. There’s also a towering, flourishing worm farm full of red wrigglers. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with Vidmar, who is a 10-year resident of Longyearbyen. His passion for supplying his community with good, locally grown food is inspiring. We toured the outside dome where most of his summer stock of vegetables is dying off as polar night approaches. Everything in the dome will become worm-food, and he also accepts green refuse from a few locals. His goal is for Longyearbyen to have a sizeable composting system so that what’s eaten in Longyearbyen is returned to the earth in an environmentally sound way.

Sustainable food is deeply important to Vidmar. His Cuban-Italian heritage translates into a zeal for understanding and using locally grown food. He’s been a guest chef in Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, showing people how to use what’s at hand in terms of mosses, seaweeds, and herbs, as well as arctic fishes and meats to create inventive and flavorful dishes. His goal for the Arctic includes greenhouses providing food for the people who live there so they can eat fresh and delicious vegetables year-round. And with a little help, he can do it. His vision is inspiring, and one that deserves to succeed in Longyearbyen as it has succeeded in other Arctic regions, such as Alaska and Iceland.

Not easy, but worth it

It’s not easy to live in Longyearbyen. It’s hard not just because of the long polar night, but also the stress of making ends meet in a place where it sometimes seems the cards are stacked against you. But these hardships have made the residents of Svalbard resilient, friendly, and into a strong community. No one lives here because it’s easy. They live here because they love it.

Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her photography has been shown nationally, and her short stories have been published in the genre magazines Fantasy and Science Fiction and Clarkesworld. She currently lives in Seattle, where trolls really do live under bridges—or at least she lives there when she’s not wandering across the Arctic. You can find her at www.philotera.com and on Instagram as @philotera.

This article originally appeared in the October 19, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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